Outside the ICA

In New England in late November, you don’t have to stay out late to stay out after dark. When we arrived at the Institute of Contemporary Art a little after 3 pm, the sun was already setting, and by the time we left at closing time two hours later, it was completely dark.

Underpass on A Street

In New England in late November, you silently give thanks for any light that brightens your path, whether it comes from candles lit in windows, colorful displays lit in shop windows, or delicate strings of tiny blue Christmas lights strung beneath an otherwise ordinary underpass.

Orange Twist, Jean Stamsta (1970)

This past weekend, I went with friends to see an exhibit of fiber art at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Whereas the quilts we’d seen at the Museum of Fine Arts this past summer were two-dimensional, hanging like tapestries on the gallery walls, the woven, stitched, and crocheted works currently on display at the ICA are billed as sculpture, a medium that exists in all three dimensions.

Elsi Giauque, Élément spatial (Spatial Element), 1979.

Sculptures are inherently pedestrian, inviting viewers to walk around and view them from multiple angles. Whereas a painting has only one good side, sculptures have many. Most sculptures are solid and substantial things, their shadows being the only part of them that potentially moves. But fiber sculptures are knitted from the negative space between individual strands, and this gives them an opacity that solid sculptures lack. Looking at a woven work, you’re simultaneously looking through it, your fellow museum visitors becoming part of the piece as they stroll past or linger to look.

Françoise Grossen, Inchworm, 1971.

Whenever I linger to look at fiber art, I experience two complementary impulses. The first is an almost irresistible urge to touch the piece, using my fingertips to read its texture like braille. To me, textiles are inherently tactile, so there is something inexplicably cruel about an exhibit that asks you to admire fiber sculptures with your eyes alone. The second impulse I experience when viewing sewn, knitted, or woven works is the urge to make my own. If curators won’t let me touch what others have made, then the only way to satisfy my eager fingers is to keep them busy with work of their own.

Ernesto Neto, SoundWay, 2012.

I never learned how to knit, but I was a crafty kid during the heyday of both macrame and latch-hooking, and in college a roommate taught me how to cross-stitch. In each case, I enjoyed the calming repetition of each individual knot or stitch following the next: a meditative monotony I practiced long before I knew what meditation was. It’s been years since I’ve either knotted or stitched: whenever I’m tempted to begin again, I remember all the projects I started but never finished, my interest in textile arts focused more on the process than the finished product.

Hooked and Twisted

When I started cross-stitching in college, I’d often do it while watching TV with my roommates, the predictable parade of one stitch following another fitting nicely with the desultory conversation that good friends enjoy over an interesting show. I particularly remember cross-stitching while watching CNN at the start of the First Gulf War, my roommates and I having friends and classmates who had been called up to serve mid-semester. It felt like our civic duty to watch the news even though there was nothing tangible we could do to help, and cross-stitching gave our nervous hands something to do that felt productive.

Xenobia Bailey, Sistah Paradise’s Great Wall of Fire Revival Tent, 1993.

These days I read during the hour or so I spend after taking the beagle out and getting settled for the night. While J readies dinner, I read with the TV in the background, the sounds of sports or news serving as a sonic backdrop. I could, in theory, spend this time knotting or stitching, but for the time being I enjoy reading, my particular talents leaning more toward texts than textiles. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate fiber arts with the vicarious joy of someone who can remember herself doing something similar.

Click here for Leslee’s account of our trip to the ICA. If you’re in the Boston area, this week is your last chance to see Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present, which is on display at the ICA until January 4. Enjoy!

Island Universe

Yesterday A (not her real initial) and I went to the Institute of Contemporary Art, where we took a brief walk through Josiah McElheny’s current exhibit, Some Pictures of the Infinite. Longtime readers of Hoarded Ordinaries might remember McElheny’s Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism, a piece at the Museum of Fine Arts which I’ve photographed frequently and blogged repeatedly. Based on my fondness for McElheny’s MFA piece, I was eager to see how his ICA exhibit held up to my expectations.

Island Universe

Walking through an art exhibit when you have only a limited amount of time is actually an interesting exercise in discernment and discrimination. A and I arrived at the ICA about an hour before closing, and my sprained foot was already beginning to fatigue from our previous wanderings. Because we didn’t have endless time to explore McElheny’s endless infinities, we had to choose which works to linger over and which to politely limp past.

I could have gazed infinitely on McElheny’s Collection of Glass Concerning the Search for Infinity, an assortment of hand-blown glass plates, each of which was etched with fine, spiraling lines that called to mind a child’s Spirograph toy. I was similarly captivated by the intricate detail of Drawings and Photographs for a Chandelier, which juxtaposes photographs of constellation-like bursts of light with geometric line drawings. But Czech Modernism Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely and Scale Model for a Totally Reflective Landscape, both of which closely mirror (pun intended) the shiny, reflective surfaces of McElheny’s MFA piece, left me underwhelmed. I’d like to think there is more to McElheny than simple shiny surfaces, so my immediate response to both of these installations was a resigned “Been there, done that.”

Island Universe

Luckily, Island Universe exceeded expectations. At first glance, the piece is deceptively simple, just a half-dozen modern-style chandeliers hanging at varying heights in a large, airy gallery. Once you start walking among these hanging pieces, however, you realize how intriguing they are, calling to mind spinning galaxies of stars circling shiny suns or equally intricate atomic structures with sparking-bright electrons orbiting densely reflective nuclei.

In its own spare, modernist way, Island Universe reminded me of the floral excesses of Dale Chihuly’s glass chandeliers (or, more accurately, the enchanting experience of wandering through a roomful of them). The piece also called to mind the frozen explosions of Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune, an installation of which I’d seen at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (and subsequently blogged) in 2005. Galaxies, atoms, and exploding cars are all bright and sparking things: you don’t need infinite hours to appreciate them, just the flash of an appreciative eye.

Click here for a photo set from Josiah McElheny’s “Island Universe. Enjoy!

Self portrait

My subconscious apparently is well aware that back-to-school time is rapidly approaching, as I’ve started to have teaching nightmares (again). Every summer as the new academic year approaches, I start getting nervous (again) about teaching: will I be prepared, and will I be able to handle the rigors of an always-daunting course-load?

Window peeping

With a week and a half between now and my first day of face-to-face classes, it’s still too early for daytime thoughts of crashing and burning, and I won’t get that butterfly feeling until the morning of my first class. But in the meantime, my subconscious mind has been stewing, providing two consecutive nights of teaching dreams.

In one dream, I was responsible for teaching meditation to three connecting classrooms of boisterous students, a task that literally ran me ragged as I raced from room to room shouting instructions at the top of my lungs to my talkative, distracted students. In last night’s dream, a shortage of classroom space meant I’d been assigned to teach at Fenway Park, where my delighted students had excellent seats but where I had to keep my back to the game as I tried to keep the attention of my (again) distracted students.

Appreciators

I’ve been teaching online classes all summer, so these dreams haven’t arisen because I’m out of practice. Instead, these dreams point to the difference between teaching online and teaching face-to-face. In my online classes, I don’t need to shout, and I don’t have to compete with other distractions: my students either do their work, or they don’t. In a face-to-face class, though, there are all those eyes staring at you: all those blank faces reflecting back your own insecurities. In the face of all those faces, you have to get your students’ attention, and you have to keep it. You have to wrestle with short attention spans, you have to keep students awake, and you have to keep students engaged in material they aren’t necessarily interested in.

It’s enough to give anyone nightmares just thinking about it.

Click here for a photo-set of images from Ugo Rondinone’s Clockwork for Oracles at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. If you want to see this same work tripped-out under the dreamlike influence of a kaleidoscopic lens, click here. Enjoy!

Crouching Spider

The last time I went to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Leslee, a mutual friend, and I saw Bourgeois in Boston, an exhibit including one of Louise Bourgeois’ larger-than-life sculpted spiders. The ICA doesn’t allow photography in its galleries, so Leslee, our friend, and I had to content ourselves with simply walking among and around the towering, spindly legs that filled an entire room while Leslee illustrated her post about our drizzly-day visit with images taken in the ICA’s camera-friendly public spaces.

Crouching Spider with Bay Bridge

Given that first, camera-free introduction to Bourgeois’ spindly arachnids, how interesting it was to stumble upon Crouching Spider along San Francisco’s Embarcadero last month, the absence of museum walls allowing me to take as many photos as I’d like. It’s one thing to see a work of art caged like a zoo animal inside a museum; it’s another thing to see it unleashed in the streets. Inside the guarded galleries of Boston’s ICA, Bourgeois’ sculpture cast soft, muted shadows and seemed a bit tame. “I wonder how they got this thing in here,” I remember wondering. In the shadow of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, Crouching Spider casts a wild, snaky shade, its withered, dwindling extremities mirroring the intricate web of the bridge’s suspension wires and railing: the spider’s art echoing the engineer’s architecture. Although devised by one in the same artist, the captive spider-sculpture I’d seen in Boston seemed entirely different from the open-air one I saw along the San Francisco shore.

Outside/Inside

On Sunday, Leslee and I returned to the ICA, this time drawn by the promise of air-conditioned respite from the weekend’s blistering hot weather. Whereas last year, our trip to the ICA was my first introduction to the work of Louise Bourgeois, this weekend we went to the ICA specifically to see its current exhibit by Anish Kapoor: Past, Present, Future. If museums are to art what zoos are to animals, my previous experience with Kapoor happened in the wild, in Chicago, where I’d taken loads of photos of Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, affectionately known among its fans as “the Bean.”

Having first encountered Kapoor’s reflective surfaces in the wilds of downtown Chicago, I wasn’t sure how well they’d fare–or how well I’d interact with them–in the captivity of museum space. Leslee and I knew from ICA policy we wouldn’t be able to take pictures; I knew from my time with Cloud Gate that we’d find plenty to do simply looking at the likes of S-Curve: a shiny, sinuous band of reflective surface that operates like a fun-house mirror, distorting and disturbing passersby with its mind-bending illusions. But how quickly would even S-Curve grow old, I wondered, and would other pieces in the exhibit fail to excite, being small enough (after all) to all fit into a single room of weirdly disorienting open space?

Alongside the ICA

Even in captivity, the work of Anish Kapoor does not disappoint. Upon entering the exhibit, Leslee and I found ourselves immediately facing S-Curve, and from that moment I felt the metaphoric feet of sensory perception knocked out from under me. Upon first approaching S-Curve, I lost all sense of depth perception, a disorienting sensation that was even stronger when I viewed Brandy Wine, a shiny red disk that flips, magnifies, and distorts objects reflected in its smooth concave surface. While daring an extreme closeup view of Brandy Wine, I repeatedly checked my feet to make sure I wasn’t walking directly into the piece. Apparently I wasn’t the only person thus disoriented by Kapoor’s almost hallucinogenic illusions, as each of the more mind-bending works in the exhibit was accompanied by its own individual museum guard who made sure confused visitors didn’t venture too close.

Hall with a view

Both space and light can be deceiving; we’ve all seen those captions on passenger-side car mirrors warning that objects reflected therein are closer than they appear. But the title of Anish Kapoor’s exhibit at the ICA–Past, Present, Future–suggests the artist is playing with illusions of time as well as space. The oddest piece in Kapoor’s exhibit is, interesting, the eponymous one, Past, Present, Future being a hemispherical mound of putty-like red wax that is continuously molded, smoothed, and spattered by a slow-moving, blade-like wall. Whereas the ICA visitors I observed were inspired to move by the crazy reflections of S-curve, dancing and darting around its winding surfaces to see it (and themselves) in every available light, the folks I saw viewing Past, Present, Future were almost motionless, stunned and silent in front of its oncoming wall. Seeing the smoothed surface of where the blade had been on this swipe or the previous one, people still stopped to watch where the blade was cutting right now. Even if an installation piece is doing nothing but molding the same wax shape over and over and over, there’s something about the process that irresistibly attracts our attention: the proverbial appeal of watching paint dry.

Behind the ICA

I’m no longer the same mound of flesh-colored putty I was when I shot photos of the Cloud Gate in Chicago more than two years ago, and neither is Anish Kapoor: we’ve both been subjected to the ceaseless swipe of time’s shaping blade. Objects reflected across the concave disk of years are smaller than they appear, or larger, or imbued with an entirely distorted sense of meaning. Finding your feet beneath you, now, is sometimes the only way you can navigate in a world that throws you S curves, sculptures, and artists trained in illusion. “We meet again,” said the spider to the fly, and this blogger, like a fly on the wall, wonders where and when the likes of us all will meet again.

For more photos of Louise Bourgeois’ Crouching Spider in San Francisco, click here; for a photo set from Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (minus the camera-free Kapoor exhibit), click here. You can see a slide-show of Past, Present, Future here, and you can see additional photos in reviews here and here and here and here. Enjoy!

Courthouse station

On a sweltering Sunday afternoon, the MBTA’s Courthouse station seems a bit surreal with its deserted concourse, cool purple lights, and shiny floor. On my way to the Institute of Contemporary Art yesterday, I wasn’t sure as I emerged from underground which was the quickest way to the museum. Luckily, upon exiting the subway station I quickly spotted a familiar face who pointed the way: Goldenstash!

Goldenstash shows the way to the ICA